A transgender man in China has won a landmark legal challenge against wrongful dismissal in what has been described as the country’s first such discrimination case.
The man, who would only be identified as Chen, was illegally fired after just a week on the job at a medical clinic in south-west China, a court ruled.
But the judge stopped short of forcing the company to apologise and did not say Chen’s dismissal was related to his gender identity. He was also awarded 2,000 yuan (£234), a month’s wages, in the 30 December ruling.
“I have always said this case was never about the money,” Chen told the Guardian. “This lawsuit was about three things: dignity, raising awareness of transgender and other sexual minorities, and pushing for anti-discrimination legislation.”
Although satisfied with the ruling, Chen vowed to continue legal challenges to force an apology. He said he hoped the case would spark renewed efforts towards enacting anti-discrimination legislation to protect more people like him.
“A lot of people face workplace discrimination but they don’t dare step forward,” Chen said. “I felt like it was my responsibility to speak up.”
China remains deeply conservative when it comes to gender and sexuality. Being gay was only decriminalised in 1997 and it was still considered a mental illness until 2001 by the Chinese Society of Psychiatry.
Only 21% said gay people should be accepted by society in a 2013 poll by the US research group Pew.
Chen has known discrimination almost all his life. From a young age he felt more male than female and would ask: “Mom, Dad, why am I a girl and not a boy?”
HIs parents were understanding, he said, allowing him to dress and act like a boy. But his classmates and teachers in school gave him a taste of the difficulties ahead.
“I was bullied by classmates and teachers would just ignore my existence,” Chen said. “When I started looking for work I often felt discrimination and never was promoted.”
When Chen first filed his case, a manager at the Ciming Health Checkup Centre seemed to confirm the dismissal was related to Chen wearing men’s clothes, telling a local newspaper: “Chen’s appearance really didn’t fit our standards.”
Wang Yongmei, one of Chen’s lawyers, said that without legal protection discrimination may continue without companies being held accountable.
“I’m not very optimistic that the employment situation of transgender people will change as a result of this case,” Wang said. “We still don’t have anti-discrimination legislation and I fear the lesson companies will learn from this case is to change direct intolerance into indirect prejudice.”
In 2016 authorities banned any depiction of gay people on Chinese television as part of a cultural clampdown aimed at “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content”.
In recent years activists have been more open about promoting equality through China’s Communist party-controlled courts. A judge rejected a same-sex couple’s request to marry in a landmark 2016 case. In September a university student sued the education ministry over homophobic textbooks.
Additional reporting by Christy Yao
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